Jason Rodriguez is worried. Not for himself — the dancer, actor and choreographer has been doing well during the pandemic. His concern is for those in the L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ community, specifically Black trans youth.
“They may have found themselves back home and in a space where they can’t be themselves, where families limit their identity,” he said. “I’m concerned about them being able to be them.”
Having the ability to be yourself is imperative to Mr. Rodriguez, both personally and in his chosen art form: vogue. For a special installment of #SpeakingInDance — our visual exploration of dance on Instagram — we checked in with Mr. Rodriguez, who has become a public face of this form, synonymous with the Black and Latino ballroom scene.
Mr. Rodriguez is a subtle scene stealer as Lamar on the FX show “Pose,” about the birth of the vogue scene in New York City. He is also known as Slim Xtravaganza and, as of last summer, has become a member of the House of Xtravaganza, which was featured in the influential 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning.”
His decision to join was prompted in part by his work on “Pose” and one of its main characters, Blanca, the tough but nurturing mother of the House of Evangelista. “Blanca just takes care of everyone,” he said. “It’s like, oh my God, Blanca, I want you to hug me. And I do want to be her, too. Everyone loves Blanca for that. Everyone’s like, I need a Blanca.”
It led him to form his own chosen family. Mr. Rodriguez, 30, counts himself as the father of a daughter and three sons. Two of his children, Ashlynn Roché, 20, and José Rodríguez, 21 (no biological relation), joined him for the video — shot in the lobby of his apartment building in Upper Manhattan during a summer downpour.
Mr. Rodriguez said he regarded the performance as a message of hope to L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ youth. “I just really would like them take a moment to enjoy vogue, to enjoy knowing a dance form that comes from Black and brown trans culture,” he said. “And to smile and be excited and have a moment of positivity of hearing someone say that we see you — we’re here for you.”
Throughout this period of social isolation, the three performers have remained close, in a quarantine bubble — dancing together and talking through the challenges of the current moment. Ms. Roché and Mr. Rodríguez first met Mr. Rodriguez at his vogue class at Gibney, a dance school and performance space in Lower Manhattan; he introduced them to the ballroom scene and has guided them through the early stages of their careers.
“It’s not that I was ever asked to be his daughter,” Ms. Roché said. “It kind of just happened. His apartment became the space where José and I could hide out and experience New York and learn what ballroom was and what family was and become ourselves and not have to worry about anything.”
Even with much of life on hold — including shooting Season 3 of “Pose” — Mr. Rodriguez is busy. He is helping to organize the Million Femme March, a celebration of Black trans lives, planned for later this summer. On July 29, he will be a judge for the online Home Improvement Ball, presented by Van Vogue Jam in partnership with the Vancouver Pride Society.
He has attended protests with his children, and finds his role as a mentor hugely fulfilling. “I listen to everything they say, I give them advice,” he said. “Maybe it’s the way they hold themselves or this hunger that I see in their eyes — because that’s what I had. When I first found dance, I had an appetite to discover how to be expressive, how to be creative, how to move. I want to help them in their journey.”
Mr. Rodriguez specializes in new way vogue, known for its geometric sharpness, precision and flexibility. (There is also old way, which is pose based, and the looser, freer vogue fem.) Recently he spoke about the importance of vogue, how his experience on “Pose” has extended into the rest of his life, and the pleasure of having others to look after: “I feel like just being a dad — I’m thankful, because it’s not like a hypermasculine toxic skin. It’s a really cute queer feminine, a flowy kind of tough skin. Long ponytail.”
What follows are edited excerpts from several phone conversations.
With this video you want to send a message of hope. In terms of the poses and feeling, what were you thinking?
I was telling Ashlynn and José that I really want people to see that you’re enjoying the movement. Don’t think too much about: Are we precise? Are we together? I’d rather have it be, if you mess up, did you smile about it? Did you try to acknowledge it? I wanted them to find a sense of being organic, because at the end of the day, vogue is organic.
What about the movement?
It really came from trying to focus on old-school poses. And I wanted to show a little bit of stretch to keep it in that new way vogue format. I wanted to bring together poses from back in the day, what that looks like with me doing it with my children. So passing on this history from when it first tapped me, and then here I am tapping two other individuals and keeping that line going.
How does vogue empower young people?
By helping them express what they can’t say. It’s a dance form to express your best self, to use these poses and step into the room and say, “I am here.” If you’re not expressing your most confident self, you’re not voguing. Here is a dance form where it’s OK to speak; if you’re saying something, then say something that’s strong and valid. It’s articulating on all levels: accessing all of your body.
Do you see connections between vogue and Black Lives Matter?
Absolutely. I feel voguing and marches remind people that Black trans lives matter, that Black queer individuals matter, too, especially in spaces like uptown, where it’s mostly heteronormative individuals. I went to this march uptown and it was at the same time of that really big march that happened in front of Brooklyn Museum. I really wanted to be at the uptown one to see if there was going to be queer representation — to see if they had an awareness of the Black trans women that were murdered.
I went with my kids and a couple of friends, and we were the only ones that started shouting out “trans lives matter.” I was like, if we were not there, would they have ever said that? We were there shouting, and we were also voguing.
What has attending protests and marches been like for you as a dancer? How do you feel when you see so many bodies?
It’s incredible. It’s a wave of energy. And it’s ongoing. They’re all marching for the same goal. You see a march like this and you’re like, oh, OK, I’m not living in hell.
I’m part of this groundbreaking TV show. I’m here spreading a dance form created by a community, a culture. It’s marching for justice. I’m not trans, so for me, it’s: How can I support? What can I do? Who am I checking in on? Those are the questions that circle my head.
How long have you had your kids?
Two, three years. I feel like it’s shaped me to be my best self. For me, having my children is to see what they’re going through. I can relate: Like picking and choosing when to be your authentic self, when to be queer, what time of the day you can put on heels so your aunt or your mom might not see it and question it. I went through all of that.
You used to be a member of the House of Ninja. When did you join Xtravaganza?
Last summer. That’s all. Isn’t that crazy? It was, I think, four years as a Ninja.
Did “Pose” influence that decision?
It did a lot, to be honest. It influenced me wanting to leave Ninja. It influenced me being a parent. Because I was like, oh my god, why don’t I feel the sense of family? Why do I not have any trans sisters in this house? I was like, what the hell is going on? Houses were built by trans women. At Xtravaganza, we have so many trans people. I feel they make it feel like a house.
Did you have a connection there?
I thought about it after the passing of Hector Xtrava. In the last conversation I had with him, I was like, “I don’t know what to do with ballroom, I feel so lost.” He was like, “What other work are you doing? How are you putting yourself in the forefront now that you are one of the faces to keep pushing this culture?» I really wanted a join to continue his memory.
How do you join a house?
Most of the time it’s if you connect with someone who’s like, “Oh, come hang out with us,” and then after a certain amount of hangouts and connection, you get invited to join. A lot of people on Instagram are like, “How do I join this house?” I don’t answer the question because it’s not a question to be answered. You have to find it.